Afunny thing happened on the way to this column. To do my usual research, I turned to the usual suspects: chain menus, recent NRN stories, USDA statistics and Google. What I discovered from that last resource was truly eye-opening. There is a staggering level of Internet interest in bacon. Aficionados can join bacon-of-the-month clubs or shop for bacon air fresheners and bacon breath mints. They can stock their cupboards with bacon jam and bacon salt. There is even bacon-based couture, including, frighteningly, bacon bras. In fact, there’s a whole culture growing up around what’s been dubbed “bacon chic.” The driving force behind all this bacon business? According to bacon expert and cookbook author James Villas, it’s pretty simple. Bacon, he contends, is the perfect food.
Bacon is salty, and chefs have long used it to perk up otherwise dull dishes. A good example is the new pasta carbonara at Bakers Square, in which chopped bacon adds salty oomph to the creamy lemon-butter sauce atop the cavatappi. Similarly in Denny’s Smothered Cheese Fries appetizer, crumbled bacon provides a salty addition to the ranch dressing and cheese sauce accompaniments. Bacon also makes appearances in soup. At Panera Bread, for example, it blunts the blandness of the russet-potatoes-and-cream blend.
As a sandwich ingredient, bacon has achieved iconic status. It puts the B in the ubiquitous BLT, where its saltiness balances the residual sweetness of the T. Pumping up the bacon volume of this menu classic has become something of a culinary sport, and Bakers Square appears to have the early lead. It recently unleashed a half-pound Bacon Lover’s BLT that includes nine slices of bacon. Also in the running is Hash House a Go Go, a San-Diego-based operation that playfully offers its BBBLT.
Bacon is both smoky and sweet, and it marries perfectly with such morning fare as pancakes and waffles. It’s naturally prominent on the menu of breakfast specialists, such as First Watch, where it’s used on such signature items as the Bacado—that’s bacon and avocado—and Gravy Train omelets, and it has easily made the leap to breakfast sandwiches, such as Friendly’s Bacon and Cheese SuperMelt, Bojangles’ bacon biscuit, and Del Taco’s Macho Bacon and Egg Burrito. Bacon is also a pleasing, smoky-sweet addition to upmarket burgers, including Burger King’s Loaded Steakhouse Burger or Jack in the Box’s BBQ Bacon Sirloin Burger. Earlier this year Chili’s launched three new Big Mouth Burgers, all of which feature extra-thick-cut bacon. And, on the heels of last year’s successful promotion, Wendy’s has reintroduced its blockbuster Baconator, which boasts six strips.
Bacon is potently potable. Given our insatiable appetite for the stuff, it’s probably not surprising that the Web is awash in recipes that use bacon to flavor home-made hooch. But it’s appearing on restaurant bar menus, too, and some notable chefs have jumped on the bandwagon, including James Beard Award winner Rick Tramonto. Prominent on the drink list at his casual Osteria via Stato in Chicago is the Baconcello, a savory play on the classic Southern Italian limoncello liqueur. Ingredients include vodka, green apples, lime, maple syrup, pancetta and bacon. PDT Bar in New York uses a bacon-infused bourbon as the basis for a new-fangled Old Fashioned, and at the Double Down Saloon in Las Vegas, imbibers can enjoy a martini made with bacon-infused vodka.
Bacon makes a fine finale. Since we can never have enough of a good thing, chefs have been experimenting with bacon desserts. Noted English chef Heston Blumenthal probably started the craze with his smoked-bacon-and-egg ice cream. Inevitably, chocolate makers have jumped in with bacon-and-chocolate bars and chocolate-covered bacon lollipops.
Attendees at this year’s Minnesota State Fair could indulge in a one-third-pound slice of bacon, fried and caramelized with maple syrup and served on a stick; the purveyor of this portable porcine treat was the aptly named Big Fat Bacon. Finally, thanks to Google, I found something that combines two of my favorite food groups and promises hog heaven in a bowl: popcorn that’s been popped in bacon grease.